Phoenix's search for defensive mid goes on

SAM WORTHINGTON
Last updated 05:00 03/08/2013
Alex Rufer
ROSS GIBLIN/Fairfax NZ
NEXT GENERATION: Ernie Merrick believes Alex Rufer could push for a staring spot in his rookie season.

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Let's get the bad news out of the way first.

Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick admits a worldwide search for a 'gun' defensive midfielder is "not tracking well."

Other than that, Merrick is satisfied with his first two months at the helm as he attempts to re-energise the wooden-spoon club that he inherited.

The Merrick masterplan has included making some tough calls, axing seven players including the club's most capped man, Tony Lochhead.

There have been surprises, with promising winger Louis Fenton in the process of being converted into a right back, while new signing Reece Caira is the frontrunner to play at left back.

And there has been a coup, with Carlos Hernandez helping lure compatriot and current Costa Rican international Kenny Cunningham to Wellington.

Alex Rufer's signing yesterday means there are now 19 players on the books, with Merrick wanting to add another one or two.

He wants a high quality defensive midfielder, and has an import slot to use should he need to.

The other potential A-League gig is being left open for young talent and Merrick would like a player that can cover Fenton at right back.

Manny Muscat and Vince Lia have both impressed Merrick in pre-season but they will be competing for one spot if he can nail his midfield target.

"It's really the last key signing for us so I'm not going to rush it and make an error, I want to take my time to get it right and I've got till the end of October," Merrick said.

"To me that's the real engine room of the team, centre midfield. You really are the quarterback, the organiser, the ball winner and all the attack and all the defence flows through the middle of the field. So you've got to really have quality people in there."

The players were upset on Tuesday night after it took a late Paul Ifill penalty to draw 3-3 with Lower Hutt City in a training game at Porirua Park.

"But I said 'just hang on a minute. You finished bottom of the league, you reckon after seven weeks of training, a couple of new signings, three matches on a bumpy pitch, and you don't get the win - you think it's as easy as turning it around in seven weeks?' They're getting the message that we're going to have to build for the next couple of seasons. I'm not using the word build to say 'OK, we can just languish at the bottom of the table'. When we build, we're building to be in the finals, season one."

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The players will have next week off before returning for the second block of pre-season, which will focus on endurance.

The first block has been an adjustment period as players try to get to grips with Merrick's vision for high intensity, pass and move, attacking football.

He is fielding a 4-2-1-3 formation and didn't believe playing under-20 internationals Fenton and Caira at fullback would be a risk at A-League level.

"I think Reece and Louis are good fullbacks already and they can only get better. There are quite a few players that started in fullback roles that finish in a more demanding position in midfield. As a youngster it's easier to play with the game in front of you, rather than playing in midfield and being under the pump to turn all the time and find space."

Merrick is also overseeing an overhaul of the football school of excellence programme, with Luke Rowe, Tom Biss and Alec Solomons cut loose.

He said signings would start next month and he wants about eight players in the 16-18 year-old bracket, with another six or seven in the 19-21 range.

Josh Brindell-South, Joel Stevens, Clayton Lewis, Justin Gulley, Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi, Hamish Watson and Tobias Bertsch are some of the names in the mix.

- The Dominion Post

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